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The medieval tales of Cronenberg and DeLillo

Discussed in this essay:

Cosmopolis, directed by David Cronenberg. Alfama Films/Prospero Pictures. 108 minutes.
Cosmopolis, by Don DeLillo. Scribner. 224 pages. $15 (paper).

Comfortable people tend to dislike irony, especially in strong doses. When Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis was issued in early 2003, it was, with a few exceptions, generally disliked by the literary press. John Updike gave it a peevish review in The New Yorker; Michiko Kakutani, chief book critic for the New York Times, called it a “long day’s journey into tedium.” Both compared it unfavorably with White Noise, DeLillo’s most suburban and accessible novel. White Noise is the DeLillo novel you’d recommend to someone who expresses an interest in his work—but who, you happen to know, really likes Ann Patchett.

The trouble with DeLillo, of course, is the irony, the rough-edged insistence on paradox and irresolution. He is part of the group H. W. Fowler identified long ago in the entry on irony in his Modern English Usage: “the elect or inner circle with whom Fate shares her amusement at our consternation . . . the few to whom it is not an occasional maxim, but a living conviction, that what happens next is the unexpected.” The idea that our artists are part of a priesthood, an elect or inner circle, is anathema to us. Even more, we don’t accept irony’s central proposition—that every truth must be able to accommodate its own contradiction. Irony is a foreign religion, one might say, a religion in the strictest and most difficult sense, because it demands the acceptance—the faith—that despite all immediate appearances and all contrary evidence certain paradoxes simply persist, with us hung between them. The universe itself is constructed on this framework, the principles of uncertainty and opposition behind every facet of existence.

Those who don’t like DeLillo’s Cosmopolis will hate David Cronenberg’s brilliantly faithful adaptation. The film, which Cronenberg wrote and directed, premiered at Cannes this spring, was released in Europe to what are called “mixed” reviews, and opened in the United States in August. What was, in the novel, a mosaic of shards becomes an expressionist laser assault in Cronenberg’s hands—which is to say, where the novel offers surprising moments of beauty in language and imagery, the film emphasizes a Brueghelesque horror. Cronenberg has always liked to take on difficult texts. He wrote and directed adaptations of J. G. Ballard’s Crash and William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, two other “Who would have thought it?” books. His films often involve seeking death or recovering from having sought it, what the director in one interview called “coming to terms with death as a physical event rather than trying to evade it.” His movies are lushly, relentlessly symbolic and acutely allegorical. And they are disturbing, in the way that only the best art, in imitation of humanity’s deepest and most resisted truths, can be disturbing.

Cronenberg manages to visualize these strange, important texts as they seemingly have to be. He used a good deal of Burroughs’s language in Naked Lunch, and in Cosmopolis he seems to have worked with the book right beside him: I’d venture that well over half the dialogue is verbatim or nearly so. The film also follows the plot of the book very closely, leaving out only a few scenes. The story tracks a day in the life of Eric Packer, twenty-eight years old, finance wizard and multibillionaire, who is taking a twelve-hour (or more) limo ride across the two-mile belly of the fish-shaped island of Manhattan. He departs from his towering building in the East 40s, the perfect non-neighborhood, where he lives in a forty-eight-room, hundred-million-dollar apartment (featuring meditation cell, card parlor, shark tank, etc.), a space so large he rarely encounters in it his new wife of three weeks, an ethereal heiress with the ethereal name of Elise. They will, however, see each other several times during the day—at mealtimes and at a chance meeting in a bookstore. Eric’s destination is a barbershop on the far West Side, near Eleventh Avenue, where his father, who died when he was five, took him as a child. The trip will be along 47th Street, a band running uninterrupted from the East River to the West Side Highway, passing just north of Grand Central Terminal, through the Diamond District, across the top of Times Square. As any local will affirm, crosstown traffic is murder, and Eric’s trip will take all day and into the evening, snarled beyond comprehension by a presidential visit, an anticapitalist demonstration, and a funeral march down Ninth Avenue in honor of a suddenly deceased Sufi rap star.

No problem, though, for the limo is a self-sufficient, insulated universe that includes a microwave oven and a heart monitor. It features a dazzling array of technology—“medleys of data on every screen, all the flowing symbols and alpine charts, the polychrome numbers pulsing”—as well as a throne in the rear on which Eric sits and conducts business throughout the day, systematically losing his entire fortune, and that of many others, betting against the yuan (in the novel it was the yen, which feels less timely but more believable, since the yuan is allowed to fluctuate only minimally). Eric travels with a security team led by a man named Torval, who informs him throughout the day of the rising intensity of a “credible threat” against his life. The credible threat is being tracked by some kind of high-tech security department that whispers into Torval’s earpiece. Eric insists, against stern advice, on continuing his blighted mission. It becomes clear that he is bent on inducing some kind of electric contact with reality through catastrophe—what the novel refers to as the “threat of death at the brink of night.” Both the novel and the film are journeys from humid, life-swarmed morning to the echoing solitude that comes later, in darkness, on moist abandoned streets.

The novel’s epigraph is a line from the late Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert: “a rat became the unit of currency.” Cronenberg uses it as an epigraph for the film as well, which at first seems gratuitously loyal—but as the film progresses, that rat becomes a provocative motif. The line is from Herbert’s great poem “Report from the Besieged City”—a medieval-toned mini epic describing a battle in defense of the “City,” a struggle that is an allegory for the resistance of the individual to Communism in Poland. The novel’s quest narrative and other symbolic features—such as Eric’s expressed desire to “buy” the Rothko Chapel and move it to his apartment, for what castle does not have one?—make plain DeLillo’s allegorical intentions. But only in the film did I recognize the story as fundamentally medieval, which is to say pre-Enlightenment, pre-individual, pre-rational, and governed by St. Paul’s essential dictum that “all creation is made subject to futility.” Herbert’s rats most prominently enter the story during a riot in Times Square, which features not only a version of the disturbing twelve-foot balloon rat that is frequently hauled out in Midtown and flown as a standard above listless union picket lines, but also demonstrators wielding dead rats. (The rat-slinging demonstrators appear earlier in a restaurant scene, yelling threats that in the film sound a bit Occupyish, but in the novel are “ancient and formulaic . . . [a] warning or incantation.”) Once the medieval flavor of the tale becomes perceptible, you can no longer escape it: the chaste and childless marriage of the king; the quest for meaning and possibly death; the dead rats and sense of plague; the chaos of an untamed populace; and the wizard’s lair of the limousine—there’s even a nod to the crystal ball in one of the computer monitors, with its spinning globes and stars.

And what marks the end of the medieval and the renaissance of rationalism but the insistence on the power and autonomy of the individual? The danger to Eric’s life, we eventually discover, is an assassin in the deranged, sad-sack person of Benno Levin (played astonishingly well by Paul Giamatti). This broken human being, living in an abandoned West Side building, in his madness delivers one of the film’s most moving lines. In a long colloquy with Eric that ends the film, Benno says in a low voice, “It’s all I can do, to be a person.” Personhood—as a thing lost and sought after—is a concept that haunts both artists’ work. It has been DeLillo’s central theme since Mao II, with its much-quoted pronouncement that the “future belongs to crowds.” Cronenberg once said that he sees a person as a “maelstrom of organic, chemical and electron chaos; volatility and instability, shimmering; and the ability to change and transform and transmute”—and his characters often go to viscerally shocking extremes chasing that transformation.

There are several fine performances in the film—including that of teen-idol vampire and debonair Euro-stud Robert Pattinson, who, it turns out, possesses all the nicely buried cynicism that the role calls for. Sarah Gadon is robotic and untouchable yet intensely desirable as Elise. Juliette Binoche, in her one extended scene, begins as a faceless woman bouncing wildly on Pattinson’s lap but becomes, post coitus, first his pedantic art dealer and then, finally, in the last shot of her extraordinarily expressive face, the only person in this film who might be capable of love. It would have been good to get the role of the barber right, but you can’t have everything—or, as Eric teaches us, once you do, you no longer recognize meaning except in ownership, and even that fails to provide you a sustainable sense of identity.

In the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas, along with other commentators, posited that scriptural language must be understood on four levels: the literal, the moral, the allegorical, and the anagogical. The fourth level, the anagogical, is the most complex; it has to do with a text’s relation to our general progress toward death and salvation. It is fundamentally eschatological, referring to final things: the orientation of the language to our own end and to end times themselves, and, as Aquinas might put it, to the glory of eternal life. The anagogical level of the text is the level that suggests the divine, and our search for the divine.

DeLillo has been playing at the edges of medieval narrative for a long time—at least since Underworld, in which the lost baseball that the New York Giants’ Bobby Thomson hits into the left-field stands in October 1951 to beat the mighty Dodgers is almost too neat an analogue for the Holy Grail. In DeLillo’s work, the anagogical level is not specifically religious—even his priests and nuns come off as skeptical and practical. (In Underworld, one priest, believing that there is reverence in knowing the names of things, makes the protagonist learn the many names for parts of the common shoe.) But I cannot think of a writer in the past thirty years who has looked so closely and curiously at the network of visible signs and deadly mysteries that arise in our world, signifying what often is called the spiritual realm.

Frequently, DeLillo’s “religious” mood derives from the contemplation of a work of art: one thinks of Gerhard Richter’s Baader-Meinhof pictures in DeLillo’s story of the same name; Douglas Gordon’s “24 Hour Psycho,” a nearly immobile version of the Hitchcock film, which opens Point Omega; practically every image in The Body Artist; the fictional performance artist Falling Man in that novel; the real Andy Warhol Mao image in Mao II; and the made-up “lost” Sergei Eisenstein film Unterwelt in Underworld. DeLillo also discovered that the issue of Life out the week of Thomson’s homer featured a two-page spread on Brueghel the Elder’s apocalyptic Triumph of Death—a spread that, when the crowd at the game goes nuts and starts throwing things toward the field, DeLillo has float down into the hands of J. Edgar Hoover, who was in fact at the game. Here is the definitively modern man, heedless of mystery and hostile to redemption. He looks uncomprehendingly at this foreign image, both alarmed and aroused.

Cosmopolis was disliked by many because, unlike White Noise, it made no room for realism. (Updike took the book to task for lacking “realism’s patient surfaces.”) For DeLillo such realism is a fantasy. Near the end of the novel, Eric finds himself longing for the same story Updike wanted:

He thought about his wife. He missed Elise and wanted to talk to her, tell her she was beautiful, lie, cheat on her, live with her in middling matrimony, having dinner parties and asking what the doctor said.

This, of course, sounds like a summary of an Updike novel, and it sounds too like most of the novels still being published and ignored by all but a dogged band of traditional readers. Realism, as an aesthetic movement dating to the eighteenth century, an artistic handmaiden to rationalism, today feels distinctly uncompelling. Our reality’s surfaces are now more ferocious than patient, and we spend much of life in retreat from them. In reality’s place we have invented “reality,” a genre of television programming that features the obese and the deranged, the horrifying freaks who live in their dead parents’ tract houses with thirty-seven years’ worth of trash and various neglected notices from the local sheriff’s department. (Or, put another way, we are entertained by the serfs, who are identifiable, as Michael Palin reminded us in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, because they are the ones covered in shit.) The narratives that flicker constantly before the eyes of anyone born after 1985 are an amalgam of text, still images, and video, spread across devices on many levels and surfaces—our new mosaic, our own ephemeral version of stained glass. As DeLillo writes in Cosmopolis, there simply are no more “plausible realities”:

But in the end you’re dealing with a system that’s out of control. Hysteria at high speeds, day to day, minute to minute. . . . We create our own frenzy, our own mass convulsion, driven by thinking machines that we have no final authority over.

The writers who understand this change of consciousness, this barrage—George Saunders comes to mind, with his obscenity-spouting corpses and characters in television sets and holographic advertisements popping out of sidewalks—these are the writers who are best positioned to speak to, and of, the world as it now is. Artists like DeLillo and Cronenberg will retain an audience because they have made themselves masters not of what fiction and film once purported to convey—domestic, realistic stories leading to moments of individual revelation—but of what each gives us in Cosmopolis: the least deniable and least escapable characteristics of modern life—unreality, dissociation, absurdity, and horror.

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